Senator Baker Says Mandatory Counsel Bill Critical to Restoring Trust in Juvenile Justice

I have listened to the stories of kids who were railroaded through the juvenile system of Luzerne County into detention, some for minor offenses, some for actions that should never have landed them in court. I have listened to the anguish of parents who helplessly watched this travesty of justice unfold, and have been wracked by guilt ever since.

A major contributing factor was the prevalent absence of counsel. Families were misled, cajoled, or intimidated into routinely waiving the right to counsel. With legal representation missing, so were justice and constitutional protections.

Juvenile justice is a serious subject. The sanctions that can be applied are real, and potentially life-altering. So why would we be more casual about ensuring counsel for juveniles than for adults?

I have the highest regard for the individuals who served on the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. Their dedicated work and their quality recommendations constituted a tremendous contribution to the cause of justice. But I respectfully disagree with their conclusion on the issue of mandatory counsel. Their perspective, understandably, is one of capable and committed practitioners who see the system at its best every day. I have an outsider’s perspective, looking at the human wreckage of a county court that for years operated at its unimaginably worst.

Yes, public budgets at every level are under serious stress. Even so, our county has now created a specific juvenile justice unit in the Public Defender’s office and added two public defenders. The lesson was hard learned , but the crucial feature of mandatory representation is now part of the system.

The right to counsel is a fundamental constitutional guarantee. It is there for a purpose. The value of this protection is time-tested. A number of counties have it as part of their system. The rest of the counties should.

After the disruption of the lives of thousands of kids by corrupt judges and their accomplices, after the stain put on our well-regarded juvenile justice system, it is impossible to shake the belief that waiving counsel may be dollar wise, but it is fairness foolish. If we want to restore public trust in juvenile justice, this bill is an indispensable step.

Contact: Jennifer Wilson
(570) 675-3931

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